Northern Ireland

BBC reporter Mervyn Jess with the RIR in Afghanistan

Mervyn Jess
Image caption Mervyn Jess on the front line in Afghanistan with soldiers from the Royal Irish and Irish Guards

As soldiers from the Royal Irish Regiment and Irish Guards near the end of their tour of duty in Afghanistan, BBC Newsline journalist Mervyn Jess reports on life on the front line in southern Helmand.

This is a diary entry written by the light of a head torch in the relative safety of Khar Nikah forward operating base.

I'm in another mud-walled compound, heavily fortified with HESCO and razor wire. HESCO is an ingenious and portable flat pack blast wall system.

Once unpacked the wire and geo-textile liner is filled with sand and gravel, and you have a ready-made fortification capable of withstanding gun, blast bombs and rocket attacks.

This is very reassuring, from where I am sitting, because on the other side of these walls are what the soldiers call "the badlands".

During the safety briefing, after our helicopter drop-off in the dead of night, one of the soldiers described the area as "highly kinetic".

In civilian speak, that means a lot of bullets flying about.

Mornings in camp are a flurry of activity as soldiers get up, get washed and fed and ready for the next patrol.

They call it "stepping off" - when they actually set foot outside the perimeter wall of the security base.

For everyone on that patrol, it is instantly "switch-on" time. The base itself, originally built and occupied by the Russians during their time in Afghanistan, sits on top of a hill with good long-range views of the surrounding countryside.

However, as one officer pointed out, "While we can see them…..they can see us".

The base has come under attack within the past 24 hours and while there is a danger from what is termed indirect fire, nothing compares to the threat posed when the soldiers go out on foot patrol.

At this point, the danger level can go off the scale.

Multiple contacts have been reported in this particular area. A contact is when ISAF - International Security Assistance Force - units are directly targeted by the insurgents.

This can be a prolonged gun battle, or when a few shots are fired at a patrol before the gunman melts back into the countryside.

This is known in local military parlance as a "shoot and scoot". However much more concerning for the army commanders and their soldiers in front-line areas in this latest phase of the conflict is the growing threat from IED's - Improvised Explosive Devices.

Image caption Royal Irish Ranger Richard Stitt had a narrow escape

They are often crude in construction but nevertheless deadly, if properly detonated. They are left concealed by roadsides or dug into ditches next to transit routes and areas regularly patrolled by soldiers.

They are capable of inflicting death and serious injury on a foot patrol or destroying an armoured vehicle depending on the type and amount of explosive packed into them.

A young Ranger from the Royal Irish Regiment had a narrow escape the other day. He was lead man in a foot patrol in the Nad-e Ali south area.

As Ranger Richard Stitt's patrol passed along a road he saw a puff of smoke and dust fly up a few metres in front of him.

This was followed by the rattle of a small metal cylinder wrapped in plastic and tape tumbling down the track, pulled by a command wire.

The following day he was shown the IED by the Army bomb disposal team that defused it.

Only a very small part of the bomb exploded when the watching insurgents pulled on the command wire.

Such was their enthusiasm to kill members of the ISAF patrol that they had wrenched the device out of the hole it had been hidden in.

Ranger Stitt was able to closely examine the IED filled with explosive from an old Chinese rocket, probably made before he was born.

As he looked at the metal cylinder packed with nuts, bolts and car spark plugs, he realised that if it had detonated as intended, he wouldn't have been there looking at it.

For him and his fellow soldiers it was "just another day in Helmand."

The first of a series of reports from Afghanistan by Mervyn Jess will run on BBC Newsline at 1830 GMT on Tuesday.